Facebook’s efforts to cozy up to media organizations appear to be timely, as Internet users who arrive at the 26 news websites analyzed in a new study from Pew Research Center via directly typing in those sites’ URLs or via bookmarks spend far more time on those sites, view more pages, and return more times per month.
Pew analyzed three months’ worth of data from comScore for those 26 sites, and it found that Internet users who arrived directly or via bookmarks spent an average of four minutes and 36 seconds per visit, compared with just one minute and 42 seconds for those arriving via Facebook.
The gap was even wider when it came to pages viewed per month, as direct visitors averaged 24.8, versus just 4.2 for Facebook visitors.
And direct visitors averaged 10.9 visits per month to the sites studied by Pew, while Facebook referrals accounted for just 2.9 visits per month.
Pew detailed its findings in the report:
This higher level of engagement from direct visitors holds true across the full mix of sites studied, from those that rank among the most shared on Facebook, such as Breitbart, to those whose traffic is heavily driven by traffic from search engines, such as ABC News, and from those with a small total audience (Mr. Conservative) to aggregators (Yahoo News). Even sites such as digital native BuzzFeed and National Public Radio, which have an unusually high level of Facebook traffic, saw much greater engagement from those who came in directly.
The data also suggest that converting social media or search eyeballs to dedicated readers is difficult to do. Most people who arrived at one of these popular news sites used only one of the three modes, suggesting that, at least on desktop/laptops, individuals tend to come to these news sites using a single method. Users had not, in other words, logged into ABC News in the morning to get the latest news and then later that night followed a link to another ABC story when checking status updates on Facebook. Of the sites examined, the percentage of direct visitors who also came to the site via Facebook was extremely small, ranging from 0.9 percent to 2.3 percent, with the exception of BuzzFeed at 11.3 percent. Similarly, direct visitors who also came to a site through a search engine ranged from 1.3 percent to 4.1 percent — again with one exception, this time being Examiner.com at 8.6 percent.
At a time when news organizations are working to understand how consumers interact with news in the digital space and are implementing digital subscription plans while energetically pushing content in social spaces, these findings encapsulate some of the key challenges facing digital news. Facebook and search are critical for bringing added eyeballs to individual stories, and they do so in droves. But the connection a news organization has with any individual coming to their website via search or Facebook seems quite limited. For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.
The data also shed light on new audience approaches. The strategy of BuzzFeed, for example, is very different from that of traditional news organizations. It is not built around building a loyal, returning audience. Instead, it is built around “being a part of the conversation,” says Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith. The site’s writers and editors develop content that people want to share so that a story reaches all those it “should” reach. It may well be a completely different audience from one story to the next. That strategy is reflected in the 50 percent of its desktop/laptop traffic that comes in through Facebook with low engagement, but high volume — far more than the 32 percent of traffic that accesses the site directly and show higher levels of engagement. The revenue strategy — built around advertising, rather than subscriptions — reflects that strategy, as well. On the other hand, a site like The New York Times — which relies on user subscriptions for a substantial portion of its revenue, and, thus, likely places high priority on loyalty and engagement — gets 37 percent of its laptop/desktop traffic from direct visitors and only 7 percent from Facebook.
Pew Director of Journalism Research Amy Mitchell said in a release announcing the study’s findings:
These findings encapsulate some of the key challenges facing digital news. Facebook and search are critical for bringing added views to individual stories, but the data suggest that it is hard to build relationships with those users. For news outlets operating under the traditional model and hoping to build a loyal, paying audience, it is critical for users to think of that outlet as the first place they should turn.
And John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Vice President of Journalism and Media Innovation Michael Maness added:
News organizations can use this study to better understand how people find their content and what attracts and sustains audiences. The findings show that cultivating relationships is central to developing a loyal following. This highlights the need for organizations to constantly experiment with new engagement opportunities, get to know their audience, and create content that resonates.
Readers: Do you think Facebook can improve its performance when it comes to engagement with news sites?